Is the Domino Waterfront the Next Dumbo?
Dumbo sits on the edge of the East River, nestled between the Brooklyn and Manhattan Bridges. In the last decade, this cobblestoned neighborhood has emerged as one of New York City’s premier arts districts. Many of the apartments feature spectacular city views and sell for more than their Manhattan counterparts.
But in 1978, when David Walentas (MBA ’64) visited Brooklyn, the area was a dilapidated, industrial wasteland known as Fulton Landing. Despite its shabby appearance, he knew the place had potential. Building one of the coolest neighborhoods in the Big Apple was no small feat. Instead of resting on his laurels, Walentas is now eager to transform another Brooklyn waterfront neighborhood.
Born in Rochester, New York, Walentas’ formative years were challenging. His father, a postal worker, suffered a stroke that paralyzed him when Walentas was 5, leaving Walentas’ mother to care for two young boys while juggling two jobs. To support the family, she had to send Walentas and his brother to live and work on a farm, where they shoveled manure and milked cows before and after school. It was grueling work, and it forced him to become strong, self-assured and independent at an early age.
The Birth of Two Trees
While living in New York City, Walentas, who loved to play Monopoly as a boy, acquired his first property in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 1966. He quickly realized it was too challenging to manage property from afar. He sold the farm and invested, with partners, the proceeds in a 60-unit Manhattan apartment building, which “turned out to be a bit of a dud,” he told Rochester Magazine.
Walentas finally started to turn a profit in the early 1970s, after partnering with Jeff Byers to establish Two Trees Management Co. Byers convinced his friends and family to invest in their company, and Two Trees acquired its first rent-controlled building on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.
Over the next decade, the partners continued to buy property in Manhattan, the Bronx, Queens, and even Atlanta and Baltimore.
From Fulton Landing to Dumbo
For Walentas, rehabilitating Fulton Landing seemed like a no-brainer. The location and buildings were spectacular, and most of the area was for sale. Within a few years, Walentas partnered with the Lauder family to buy 2 million square feet of industrial buildings in Brooklyn from Harry Helmsley for $12 million. According to Forbes, which named Walentas to its 2014 list of billionaires, this was “one of the best New York real estate deals since Peter Minuit bought Manhattan for trinkets and beads.”
At the time, however, it was a hard sell. “Nobody really got it,” Walentas told The Real Deal: New York Real Estate News. “The planning people didn’t get it. The community board voted against every rezoning we proposed down there. The banks all quit. My partners all quit, so we ended up with all the marbles.”
Then, in 1983, Walentas encountered resistance from New York City’s deputy of finance and economic development and the Fulton Landing manufacturing companies that weren’t included in his revitalization plans, He was subsequently “de-designated” as the waterfront’s developer until 1997, when the area was rezoned for residential use. It took Walentas 20 years and plenty of tenacity, patience and persistence to see his vision of Dumbo come to fruition.
The Next Big Brooklyn Neighborhood?
An energetic 75-year-old, Walentas is now working with his son, Jed, to transform the Domino Sugar refinery and approximately 11 surrounding acres on the river in Williamsburg into a new $1.5 billion neighborhood, complete with a five-acre waterfront park, a school, a recreation center and a public square.
The Domino refinery and its original, iconic sign will remain intact, and the building will be used as office space. Four tall Tetris-shaped skyscrapers will have 2,200 apartments, including 660 affordable and middle-income units. Walentas also plans to lease the ground-floor retail space exclusively to small, independently owned businesses, an unconventional approach that helped him in Dumbo nearly 40 years ago.